EDINBURGH has been described as the Athens of the North, but as I wait in a queue for tickets for the castle in the lashing rain, crowded under a tiny red umbrella with a very grateful Buddhist monk and my seven-year-old daughter, I beg to differ.
The castle may dominate the town, perched on its volcanic mound like the Parthenon in Athens, but the last time I explored the Greek Acropolis it was in 40 degree heat and I got sunstroke. Absolutely no danger of that here.
The poor Buddhist monk, over from Thailand giving meditation lessons, had decided to explore Edinburgh in his free time and clearly no one had told him about the Scottish climate.
“Why does it rain when it is summer?”
he asks, looking bemused at the stair-rods lashing against the castle walls, his orange cloak so wet it sticks to his skin. He was ill-prepared for the rain. I push my umbrella over his shaven head a little more, in sympathy.
My aunt, a native of the city for more than 40 years, laughs when I tell her about the monk, who later gave me a copy of his meditation CD to thank us for sharing our brolly.
“You meet all sorts of people in Edinburgh,” she says.
We travelled up to the city like kings, resplendent in first class on the East Coast mainline, watching the North Sea glittering in the sunshine on the stunning Northumberland coast before drawing into an overcast Edinburgh at Waverley Station.
Waverley posts you straight into the centre of Edinburgh, exactly between the Old Town and the New.
Downhill takes you to the perfect Georgian avenues of the New Town – a shoppers’ paradise – and uphill to the higgledy-piggledy medieval streets of the Old Town and Edinburgh’s very own Acropolis.
Visitors throng the streets of Edinburgh
The castle perches on an ancient volcanic rock and its military might can be seen from everywhere in the city. It is a draw too tempting for any tourist and it is the first place we visit, after dropping our bags in the luggage storage at our hotel, the newly opened Ibis South Bridge hotel in the heart of the Old Town.
The castle’s military history is predominant, and anyone with an interest will find it fascinating. For the younger visitor, the Scottish Crown Jewels, in their darkened room, glitter like the temptation of shiny sweet wrappers. However, the view from the castle, looking past its ancient cannons, across the New Town to the port of Leith and the Firth of Forth in the distance, is worth the entry fee alone.
My daughter Holly has been drooling over the open-top tourist buses since we arrived and after the castle we stroll down to Waverley Bridge again to catch one. Earphones in for the commentary, and we are off.
Edinburgh, while very compact and walkable, lends itself well to a bus tour of the main parts, especially when little legs are tired, and we enjoy the rest as we sit on the top deck, the sun now beaming down on us. The tour takes in parts of the New Town, passing the famous department store Jenners, the imposing Scott monument, and bustling Princes Street, before going behind the castle into the Old Town with its more grisly tales of bodysnatchers, hangings, abject poverty and huge overcrowding in a time when more than 80,000 residents lived in a tiny area within the city’s defensive walls. Some of the earliest “high rise”
multi-storey buildings were constructed in the Old Town as the population grew and housing was in short supply, with residents reluctant to build outside the city’s defences. By the 18th Century, the construction of new streets led to building of underground streets and vaults, which can be seen today in numerous underground tours and in the tourist attraction, Mary King’s Close, on the Royal Mile.
The bus tour continues on to Holyrood, at the bottom of the Royal Mile, where the new Scottish Parliament building – love it or hate it – can be seen alongside the beautiful old Palace of Holyrood.
The view from the Castle, towards Leith
A new attraction, Dynamic Earth, is a science-themed children’s museum which has the look of a mini Millennium Dome from the outside.
We carry on up to the Old Town, disembark, check into the Ibis properly and enjoy the views from our top-floor room’s long skylights over the jumble of Old Town rooftops and chimneys across to Edinburgh’s famous hill Arthur’s Seat. Even as we climbed into bed that night we could see intrepid walkers at the top of the hill, enjoying the last vestiges of May daylight.
Ibis opened this, its second Edinburgh hotel, with 259 bedrooms, earlier this year in the heart of the Old Town, just minutes away from the castle.
The next morning we fill up at the breakfast buffet before heading down to the New Town. Holly decides the Scott Monument needs to be climbed, unaware of her mother’s fear of spiral staircases, and I reluctantly follow her up the narrow stairway to the first level of the monument built in memory of Scotland’s laureate Sir Walter Scott. It’s not to my taste, rather a macabre Victorian Gothic feast, but some might think it elegant. You can continue up another three floors to the pinnacle, but we just didn’t fancy it.
We’re soon back on safe ground in the Princes Street Gardens and head to the free National Gallery of Scotland – whose neo-classical columns really do resemble the Parthenon – where we look through the galleries containing the Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings.
Back up to the Old Town, an hour or two before our train, and we explore the beautiful St Giles Cathedral and bask in the sun outside for a while, before popping into the free Museum of Childhood – a good budget way to spend a couple of wet hours in Edinburgh with children, with displays of historic toys, hands-on exhibits, and a few which might stir some childhood memories for even the youngest of us.
You could spend a week in Edinburgh and still not see everything, or just a day walking about and enjoying the ambience of the magical Old Town – so picturesque now, but once a gritty den of squalor and crime.
Princes Street and the Scott Monument
As cities go, it’s got to be one of the most interesting in Europe – and only two hours from Darlington by train.